The critics have been trying to pick this fight for years. Last week's City Council meeting brought two of the most contentious city planning initiatives ever - the Scattered Cooperative Infill Project (SCIP II) and the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA) - into hand-to-hand combat. SCIP II, which is building affordable single family homes and townhomes, and the ARA, which is charged with planning commercial revitalization, share the same turf in the East 11th and 12th Street area, but until last week their missions had not overlapped. When SCIP II came to chambers seeking what should have been an uncontroversial zoning request in ARA's territory, Councilmember Willie Lewis took the opportunity to take a shot at SCIP - a pet project of Lewis' unpopular predecessor Eric Mitchell. Unpopular with the sitting council, that is. In fact, the taint that Mitchell's fingerprint leaves on the two projects has threatened to sink both ARA and SCIP every time the projects have come before council since Mitchell's departure last June. Shortly after Lewis ousted Mitchell from office, many Eastside neighborhood associations viewed the change in command as an opportunity to derail what they believed to be ARA and SCIP's bureaucratic intrusion into their community. In the 10 months since, however, SCIP and ARA leaders have diligently tried to refashion themselves as more than just Mitchell's lackeys. Moreover, the groups have sought to prove that their projects are vital to the revitalization of the underdeveloped and impoverished area.
"Once people have seen the houses, SCIP has been so warmly received," observes Cloteal Haynes, a SCIP development team member. Indeed, and why not? The 11 single-family homes already completed under SCIP and sold to low-income, first-time homebuyers are an attractive addition to a sagging neighborhood.
But it's not the product which has council in a dither, it's the price tag. So far, $6.4 million in federally subsidized housing funds has been poured into SCIP, and there is every likelihood that the project will ask for more money as it moves toward the completion of 100 homes, both for sale and for rent. For all that investment, the completion of 11 homes doesn't seem like much of a payoff where an already skeptical council is concerned. SCIP's developer, Gene Watkins, says that the level of subsidy is necessary to provide affordable housing in an area that has not seen significant new home construction in 30 years. In fact, the issue which brought SCIP to council last week is proof that developing SCIP has not been easy. This most recent hurdle involved a zoning request to subdivide land that had not been legally zoned since the 19th century. Such obstacles, Watkins says, are the reason SCIP's construction has been both costly and drawn out. Councilmembers, on the other hand, worry that it is because subsidy money is filling pockets instead of neighborhoods.
Lewis' gripe last Thursday was not explicitly about money, however; it was over compatibility, and SCIP's plans to build 21 townhomes on the same stretch of 12th Street on which ARA has commercial designs. A letter from ARA's board chair, former Councilmember Dr. Charles Urdy, was supposed to allay those concerns, but in typical fashion for these two projects, the letter only aroused suspicion. After all, weren't Watkins and Urdy both part of Mitchell's inner circle?
In fact, though, ARA's support may be less political than it is economic. The Anderson Community Development Corporation (ACDC), the umbrella organization developing SCIP, purchased one of the lots in the parcel now up for rezoning with the understanding that when ARA finally received its federal funding, ARA would buy back part of the parcel from SCIP. In other words, ARA not only knew SCIP would be overlapping into its territory, ARA had already made deals with SCIP to share the land. Nevertheless, Lewis jumped at what he perceived as a lack of communication between the two groups.
"SCIP II gets opposition out of the weirdest places and for the most obscene of reasons," says Watkins. It is hard not to wonder if Lewis' objections, as well as his support on council, stem from a personal dislike of Watkins himself. It is no secret that Watkins, a former head of the city's Housing Department, is widely mistrusted because he is now pocketing the very federal dollars he used to administrate. And when Watkins last came to council wearing his other hat as president of the Capital City Chamber of Commerce, it was Lewis, once again, throwing obstacles in his path. Lewis did not return phone calls for this article.
This time, though, the barrier could have sunk Watkins and SCIP. Lewis moved that SCIP's requested rezoning be postponed until after the ARA master plan has been approved. Not only is that master plan not due to be finished until July, but the obligatory public hearings and votes at ARA itself, then at the urban renewal board, the Planning Commission, and the City Council, make it unlikely that the master plan will obtain final approval until well into 1999. By that time, SCIP would probably be bankrupt. Even given the subsidies, SCIP is now flying by the seat of its pants - building one phase of the project to finance the following phase. Lewis suggested that while this rezoning awaits approval, SCIP could simply build somewhere else, but Watkins and Haynes pointed out that SCIP is simply not lucrative enough to function like a wealthy developer. "If everyone was able to do what the larger builders do, then we would have a lot more affordable housing," Watkins points out.
Lewis' motion for postponement was replaced by a compromise offered by Councilmember Daryl Slusher, which passed the rezoning on first reading and sent it back to the ARA board for approval before the final two readings reach council.
Haynes and Watkins say they are worried about the effect the delay will have on five to 10 pre-qualified homebuyers awaiting the approval of their mortgages on the SCIP townhomes. But Councilmember Jackie Goodman, who supported Lewis' motion, was not swayed. "Obviously SCIP is not just a rush of houses going up everywhere you look. It didn't seem like there was the urgency that told me that we needed this decision at this moment in time." Besides, Goodman points out, with the tight affordable housing market in Austin, "there doesn't seem to be a lack of folks who are eligible."
Still, getting the ARA board to sign off on SCIP could prove easier said than done. The board was recently expanded to an unwieldy 29 members (another Lewis brainstorm), many of them neighborhood representatives who are hot to see ARA planned their way. Although neighborhood leaders want to ensure that the area stays residential, they have their doubts about the governmental interference and outside profiteering which SCIP represents to them. Being essentially innocuous, however, the SCIP rezoning will almost certainly pass through the ARA board, and for that matter City Council. But not before jumping through a seemingly endless supply of political hoops.
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